Information is born free, but everywhere is in chains.
On the 15th Dec 2016 Dr Susan Priest,(pictured) Corporate Director at Shepway District Council (SDC) used urgency powers to purchase 10.75 acres of land known as Biggins Wood, in Cheriton. The land SDC bought was purchased from a known criminal for £1.5 million. He resides in Switzerland has a company in Luxembourg and is linked to HSBC (Cook Islands) Ltd. Both are known tax havens. The 10.75 acres SDC purchased is contaminated, as the land was formerly used as a brick works and a refuse dump.
The decision to purchase the land was taken by Dr Priest under “urgency powers” excluding the decision from any form of scrutiny and by passed full council, thus silencing any debate or difficult questions, possibly.
During 2016/17 SDC received 1026 requests for information under FoI, SAR and the Environmental Information Regulations. One of these requests was sent to SDC by our Public Face on the 6th Jan 2017; after an overworked and underpaid Journalist ran the story of the purchase of Biggins Wood site by SDC in the Folkestone & Hythe Express. The Request was vey simple and asked for:
“The full financial viability assessment” for Biggins Wood
SDC wish to build 77 homes and 54 light industrial/commercial units on the site.
On the 23rd Jan SDC replied to the request and released redacted copies of the requested information. On the same day our public face requested an Internal review of SDC’s decision to withhold the redacted information. The council responded on the 20th Feb and clung to position that the “full” viability assessment did not need to be released as the information . The Council cited 12(5)(e) of the Regs; as it considered “it would adversely affect the confidentiality of commercial or industrial information where such confidentiality is provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest.“
The information requested which was redacted by SDC relates to:
The costs of remediation or decontamination of the Biggins Wood land.
The projections/assumptions in relation to rental income, sales values, costs and anticipated profit for the Biggins Wood homes.
On the 27th Feb 2017 our public face contacted the Information Commissioner, (IC) to complain about SDC’s handling of the request, specifically the decision to withhold the redacted information within the scope of the request.
SDC have stated that the acquisition of the Biggins Wood site will enable them to meet their corporate objectives and represents good value for money. However, will it represent a good return for the local taxpayer?
After seven months the IC has issued a decision notice; handed down on the 14th Sept. The IC states she was “mindful of the fact that’s SDC’s bargaining position is not very strong as a result of the information which has been revealed publicly regarding the state of the land and the difficult conditions it would present to a potential developer. It is not the most attractive option for a developer which is why the public authority has struggled to attract them in the first place.“
The IC carries onto say “the fact is, the difficult ground conditions make the land a less attractive option for developers, and consequently the Council’s negotiating position, less strong.“
The IC decided in favour of our public face’s favour and informed SDC to release the “full” financial viability assessment, as the IC concluded that the public interest to know the cost of remediation, the rental incomes, the sales values, costs and anticipated profit for the Biggins Wood development. Releasing this information will allow the local taxpayer to determine whether or not the Council will get a good return on their investment.
The Valuation Report is partially redacted information and is now one year old. It was prepared by BNP Paribas in Sept 2016.
The decision notice from the IC means the SDC must release the information within 35 days of the decision notice. SDC have until the 19th Oct 2017 to comply with the IC decision. However, that said, SDC can appeal the IC decision to the First Tier Tribunal. They have 28 calendar days, so must lodge any appeal by the 12th Oct 2017.
Last Wednesday at Cabinet, the Council decided to charge for Environmental Information Requests, such as the one our public face sent to SDC way back in Jan 17. At bullet point two, Para 5.5 of Report C/17/35 it states:
“It (The Council) could be accused however of trying to deter access to “environmental information”‘
SDC have deterred and may still possibly deter the requested Environmental Information from escaping their chains. Will the information be allowed to break free from the chains SDC hold it in? Only time will tell.
Finally, our public face will today, give a free 3 hour seminar on the Freedom of Information Act at Christchurch Academy, Brockman Road, Folkestone at 1.30pm to 4.30pm. If you want to learn how to free information from SDC’s shackles then do come along.
The Shepwayvox Team
There are legitimate uses for offshore companies and trusts. We do not intend to suggest or imply that any persons, companies or other entities included in this blog post have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly; unless found so by a Court of Law.